Friday 13 December 2013

HDB flats in Marina South?

Tanjong Pagar has Housing Board flats towering next to office blocks in the Central Business District. Should HDB precincts be built in the new downtowns of Marina South and Kampong Bugis so they don't become very rich ghettoes?
By Melissa Tan, The Straits Times, 12 Dec 2013

THE latest draft master plan for Singapore's development announced last month focused on three key strategies for Singapore.

The first is to build townships for all ages that are "green, healthy, connected, strong in community interaction and spirit". Second: bring quality jobs closer to home. Third: provide a range of housing options.

When the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) released its Draft Master Plan 2013 last month, it promised that Singaporeans will "continue to enjoy a good quality living environment in new housing areas at Bidadari, Tampines North and Punggol". Established towns will also be rejuvenated with new homes.

The masterplan earmarked two new districts, Marina South and Kampong Bugis, for development into eco-friendly and walkable residential districts.

Marina South is east of Marina Bay and next to Gardens by the Bay. It is slated to have around 9,000 private homes on a 21.5ha piece of land. Kampong Bugis, an 18ha area bounded by Kallang Road and Crawford Street, will get about 4,000 private homes.

Neither area has public housing planned for it at the moment.

Analysts were quick to interpret the draft masterplan as one that tried to foster more inclusiveness in Singapore, for instance by ensuring that Marina South and Kampong Bugis are not gated communities for the rich but are "fenceless" pedestrian-friendly zones accessible to all.

This opens up an interesting possibility: how about putting public housing in these prime downtown areas?

Can a Housing Board precinct rise amidst Marina South's elevated landscaped walkways, or along the waterfront park in Kampong Bugis? This would after all fulfill URA's objectives to build townships strong in community interaction, bring jobs closer to homes, and widen housing options.

A quick poll of 10 analysts found six who thought this worth exploring, and four who were plain aghast at the thought.

But in fact, the concept is not so out of kilter with Singapore's own development history.

Early HDB precincts were built in the city centre such as Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown, to house people living in the overcrowded central urban core.

HDB was set up in 1960 after Singapore became self-governing under the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1959. The first two HDB blocks in Tanjong Pagar were built on Cantonment Road in 1963, at Duxton Plain where the Pinnacle@Duxton now stands.

In Chinatown, the flats at Jalan Minyak in York Hill were completed in 1964, while Blocks 335A and 335B Smith Street were completed in 1983.

American political scientist Robert Gamer, who studied Singapore's urban planning in the 1960s and 1970s, noted in a 1972 book titled The Politics Of Urban Development In Singapore: "The old city found millionaire and pauper living side by side... Rich and poor could get to know one another, talk to one another, and help one another out on a personal basis. This undoubtedly had a tempering effect on class antagonisms."

But he also warned: "This lever of social control will be missing in the future. Millionaires do not frequent housing estates."

Perhaps in part due to such fears, urban planners like URA general manager Alan Choe said in 1975 that "the residential usage proposed in the central area must cater for all social groups". He advocated public housing, middle- income housing and luxury flats, and added that "most of them will have to be in the form of high-rise tower blocks to justify high land costs".

Newer estates were later built farther from the city centre as the country developed. But as recently as 2008, new HDB housing was erected in the city centre. This was the Pinnacle@Duxton development in Tanjong Pagar. But this was, arguably, a unique project.

Too expensive land?

PRIME land is too costly to justify building public housing, some argue. CIMB economist Song Seng Wun noted: "Wherever you are in the world, the property values in and around CBD (central business district) areas will be relatively more expensive than other parts of the city. In the case of tiny Singapore, it is even more so."

At tenders for 99-year leasehold state land, plots in the city centre fetch much higher prices than those in suburban areas. In September, a Mount Sophia residential plot drew a top bid of $1,157 per sq ft per plot ratio. This was more than twice the top bid of $522 psf ppr for a plot in Upper Serangoon View last month.

The Government itself is acutely aware of the economic costs of providing HDB flats. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview for a book commemorating HDB's 50th anniversary that public housing was "a good investment in our social infrastructure, but we have to be conscious of the cost and the resources that we are putting into this". This was not just the construction cost but also the cost of the land that has to be set aside, he said.

A few analysts cite the controversial example of the Pinnacle@ Duxton as reason why HDB should not repeat that episode.

The old HDB flats on that site were torn down and rebuilt. At its launch in 2004, private developers complained that the designer- style flats in a prime area competed with private apartments. This prompted the Government then to say that the Pinnacle was a special one-off project and the HDB "will not roll out a similar project within the CBD".

Then, at its relaunch in 2008, its high prices drew flak from buyers. A 49th-storey five-room unit was priced at $645,800 in September 2008. That eclipsed the previous record of $531,000 for a new HDB five-room unit at Toa Payoh in February 2008.

Incensed flat buyers wrote to The Straits Times Forum page to criticise the HDB's "market- based pricing approach", and for "further stoking the inflationary trend of home prices".

HDB flats in the new downtown areas would be even more costly. Mr Alan Cheong, a property analyst at Savills Singapore, reckoned that a four-room flat with an unobstructed scenic view might be priced as high as $900,000. "If flats there are beyond the reach of the average Singaporean, that may not truly promote the cause of inclusiveness," Mr Cheong said.

Sociologist Chua Beng Huat said that adding HDB flats to downtown districts just to demonstrate inclusiveness could be "tokenism of the worst kind". Instead of truly including the less well-off, it would constantly remind them that they were poorer than their neighbours living in the private condominiums, Prof Chua said.

Others said only a small number of lucky households would benefit from HDB flats in prime areas, stoking envy among others.

PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant Choo Eng Beng said the plan for "fenceless" precincts in the new downtown areas was inclusive enough. "I don't feel that there's a difference in terms of social community if you add public housing there," he said. He added that the benefits from selling the land in central areas to private developers could be used to build "better quality HDB houses for the country as a whole" and more infrastructure.

Instead of building HDB flats in pricey Kampong Bugis and Marina South, "it would be better if prices can be lowered in general for the new 500,000 upcoming public housing (flats) so that all new homeowners can benefit", added Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) researcher Tan Meng Wah.

Another issue is whether the presence of HDB flats could affect land values in prime areas. One real estate industry insider who requested anonymity said that building HDB flats on prime land "may not be doing justice to the land" and could lower its future value.

It would also alter the identity of the downtown district. He asked rhetorically: "Would you want to put an HDB flat into a GCB (good class bungalow) area?"

Social benefits

ON THE flip side, those who support having HDB flats in central areas argue that it promotes both inclusiveness and greater diversity.

Visiting these areas to enjoy their amenities will not be quite the same as living there, they say.

As veteran architect Tay Kheng Soon put it: "We don't want to be a tourist in our own land."

IPS economist Yeoh Lam Keong said adding public housing - from rental to five-room flats - would ensure a "better mix of socioeconomic classes and ethnic mixing". Without that, Kampong Bugis and Marina South could become "a very rich ghetto", he warned. "That's unhealthy in terms of national identity; people will feel that the best areas are not accessible to them."

In any case, the Government has already forgone billions in land revenue by zoning expensive prime land in Marina for a public park, Gardens by the Bay. Allocating land for public housing in prime areas is similarly "for the greater public good", he said.

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy senior fellow Donald Low favoured having public housing in central areas as this added to diversity. "I'm a big fan of dense, compact neighbourhoods which have a great deal of diversity in terms of the mix of residential types, varied retail and office buildings and with people of all ages from different income groups living in close proximity."

He cited Holland Village - where HDB flats and hawker centres surround landed housing, condominiums, trendy eateries, spas and banks - as an example. Katong is another.

He argued that a decision on whether public housing should be included in the new downtown areas should not be based purely on financial returns. Social returns should not be underestimated.

These come from creating neighbourhoods that people enjoy; having people from different strata of society live in close proximity; and "from creating a sense of commonality rather than exclusivity", he argued.

Mr Yeoh acknowledged that having HDB flats on prime land may lower the land value there, but asked: "What is the value of having very expensive areas, what does that do for national prosperity? It's probably negative social value... You may have a loss because the government land may be sold for less, but this is a worthwhile cost to the state."

And as CIMB's Mr Song noted, taking the focus on price to its logical conclusion would result in public housing being pushed farther into the outskirts. "Can you imagine public housing being pushed into Johor, if Singapore is so expensive next time? That's a terrible scenario," he said.

In the 1970s, when Singapore was far less developed, urban planners considered not just the economic cost but also the social impact of putting HDB flats in prime areas. Will today's planners maximise land revenue? Will they remember the backlash from the Pinnacle and eschew new public housing in prime areas?

It is by no means an easy call.

One thing is for sure: more is at stake than just the physical cityscape.

Way forward for inclusiveness

ECONOMIST Yeoh Lam Keong's view that public housing - from rental to five-room flats - in Kampong Bugis and Marina South would ensure a "better mix of socio-economic classes and ethnic mixing" represents socialist idealism at its extreme ("HDB flats in Marina South?"; last Thursday).

For example, the rental flats in Jalan Kukoh sit directly opposite the mostly fenceless high-end condominiums at Robertson Quay. There is nothing to stop the residents of both areas from visiting one another. But has this resulted in greater interaction between the two communities and increased the feeling of inclusiveness among those in Jalan Kukoh?

In fact, I often wonder why such a valuable piece of land is still being used for a highly subsidised housing estate.

Now, try to imagine a Jalan Kukoh-like housing estate among the high-end condominiums, mixed developments and commercial buildings in Marina South. Will the poor feel comfortable living cheek by jowl with the rich - and vice-versa - in an environment that highlights the wealth gap on a daily basis?

Are there not already far more conducive common spaces - national service, places of worship, schools, the workplace, shopping centres, hawker centres and so on - for people from all walks of life to mingle with one another if they choose to?

Schemes to make "rich ghettoes" accessible to all just to demonstrate inclusiveness sacrifice billions in land revenue, which could be used to build better public housing estates across the island. They also smack of "tokenism of the worst kind", as highlighted by sociologist Chua Beng Huat, simply because only some among the poor will get to live in these communes.

Ultimately, inclusiveness must be about giving all citizens, regardless of their backgrounds, a fair shot at improving their lot based on hard work, various indicators of intelligence and so forth.

It is not about reducing everything in life to the lowest common denominator of equity, and inadvertently engendering false hopes of entitlement among the disenfranchised.

The way forward for inclusiveness is to try and level everyone up - not down - based on personal and collective responsibility as well as sensible wealth redistribution programmes.

Civilisations progress only when individuals and communities aspire towards the finer tangibles and intangibles in life, instead of reinforcing the "politics of envy" as well as devaluing the spirit of innovation and enterprise.

Toh Cheng Seong
ST Forum, 17 Dec 2013

Mixed housing model benefits the poor...

ECONOMIST Yeoh Lam Keong's view about public housing in Kampong Bugis and Marina South does not represent "socialist idealism at its extreme" or "tokenism of the worst kind" ("Way forward for inclusiveness" by Mr Toh Cheng Seong; Tuesday).

Instead, such a housing model is a symbolic and practical way of showing and sharing Singapore's economic progress.

Mr Toh cited Jalan Kukoh as an example of how the poor will not "feel comfortable living cheek by jowl with the rich - and vice-versa".

The poor are rational economic beings too.

The residents of Jalan Kukoh, which is right smack in the middle of the city with access to transportation nodes, save on transport costs and have access to social and other amenities in nearby Chinatown.

Marina South will be a transportation and business hub. Having HDB flats there will give some low- and middle-income earners the chance to enjoy a better quality of life as well as compete for better jobs in the city.

Signs of the income gap are everywhere in Singapore. Moving the poor out of the city area will not shield them from the reality, nor should we do so.

Instead, we should inspire them by giving them the chance to live among the rich in the city.

I agree that a holistic approach based on the individual's responsibilities, innovation and enterprise should be adopted to level everyone up.

However, progress will be made only when the weakest members of society are given a fair chance to succeed, and the rich realise that society has played a part in their success.

Singapore society is at a turning point now. We have to decide what kind of society we want to create and, more importantly, sustain.

How we decide to allocate our limited land and financial resources now will have an impact on not only our generation, but also many generations to come.

Alvin Ang Han Cheang
ST Forum, 19 Dec 2013

...and prevents social problems

SOCIOLOGICAL studies have determined that there is no better way to breed anti-social behaviours, ranging from theft to outright rioting, than by dividing cities strictly based on social class, income or race ("Way forward for inclusiveness" by Mr Toh Cheng Seong; Tuesday).

Latin America, where crime rates are much higher than Singapore's, is full of gated communities where wealthy residents must show their identity cards to enter their fenced-off homes.

Mr Toh asked whether the poor will "feel comfortable living cheek by jowl with the rich".

The answer is very clear:

Has any harm come to the residents of Jalan Kukoh and Robertson Quay from living in close proximity to one another? Are the HDB flats around Holland Village causing anxieties for that community's wealthier residents?

Some American cities have built public housing estates in remote, cordoned-off areas far away from wealthy neighbourhoods.

But in Canada, cities like Toronto place public housing in wealthy neighbourhoods, even in the downtown core.

And Toronto, with a much larger population than some United States cities like Detroit and San Francisco, has a much lower murder rate than these cities, which have segregated public housing.

The evidence is clear: If you sharply divide people by wealth, social class or race, you also create a toxic stew for the breeding of crime and social problems - something Singapore, with its mixed housing model, has wisely managed to avoid.

Civilisations best aspire towards the finer intangibles in life when there are communities where people from all walks of life interact, creating rich and intangible cultural synergies.
Eric J. Brooks
ST Forum, 19 Dec 2013

Be wary of extreme capitalist logic

MR TOH Cheng Seong ("Way forward for inclusiveness"; Tuesday) argued that economist Yeoh Lam Keong's view on public housing in Kampong Bugis and Marina South represented "socialist idealism at its extreme".

He said such a proposal "just to demonstrate inclusiveness sacrifices billions in land revenue" and that it smacks of "tokenism of the worst kind".

His views are flawed.

First, such a proposal is not just to demonstrate inclusiveness. It is to promote and enhance inclusiveness, which is a value to be pursued for a harmonious society.

Second, the pursuit of inclusiveness is not "socialist idealism at its extreme", although it is a socialist value to be pursued.

The proposal merely gives the common folk an opportunity to live in a choice waterfront residential area together with the rich.

In fact, Mr Toh's argument represents capitalist values and logic at the extreme. His views are logical only if one reduces the merits and demerits of every issue to dollars and cents.

Based on his logic, all the choice residential zones, especially the waterfront areas along the southern coastal belt, should be reserved for the rich.

But Mr Toh is right on one point: The pursuit of socialist ideals certainly should not be about "tokenism" and "engendering false hopes of entitlement among the disenfranchised". It must be about real equity being enjoyed by the masses.

The availability of choice state land for public housing at affordable prices is according true and real equity to the people.

We must be wary of extreme capitalist values and logic. For far too long, such views have gone unchecked and held sway, resulting in the present unsustainable gap between the rich and the common folk, not only in Singapore but also in the world. This bodes ill for all.

Dennis Chua Soon Chai
ST Forum, 19 Dec 2013

More important to be content and comfortable

OF LATE, there has been much discussion on the merits and demerits of public housing in Marina South ("Way forward for inclusiveness" by Mr Toh Cheng Seong, Tuesday; "Mixed housing model benefits the poor..." by Mr Alvin Ang Han Cheang and "...and prevents social problems" by Mr Eric J. Brooks, both published on Thursday).

Imagine if the HDB were to build flats in Orchard Road or Paterson Road. Would someone buy such a flat if he is just a blue-collar worker on a modest salary? There are no hawker centres nearby and food expenditure will take up a big chunk of his salary. And property tax would be much higher than that for a flat elsewhere.

The well-heeled can live comfortably in Sentosa Cove because they have the means to do so. I do not envy them. A person may possess little property but his worries will proportionately be less.

I have travelled to the remotest parts of Cambodia, where the people live in small huts without proper sanitation. They live a carefree life and there is no social pressure for them to "upgrade".

It is of no use to argue whether the poor should live cheek by jowl with the rich.

Let the poor choose their dwelling place, be it in Orchard Road or a god-forsaken corner of Singapore. What's more important is that they live where they can be happy, content and comfortable.

Heng Cho Choon
ST Forum, 21 Dec 2013

'Superficial constructs' won't engender mixing

IN THEIR letters published on Thursday, Mr Alvin Ang Han Cheang ("Mixed housing model benefits the poor..."), Mr Eric J. Brooks ("...and prevents social problems") and Mr Dennis Chua Soon Chai ("Be wary of extreme capitalist logic"; Forum Online) have missed the thrust of my objection ("Way forward for inclusiveness"; Tuesday) to economist Yeoh Lam Keong's view on mixed housing.
I had specifically asked whether the proximity of a rental housing estate in Jalan Kukoh to a mostly fenceless, high-end private property precinct at Robertson Quay has resulted in a "better mix of socio-economic classes and ethnic mixing", as this objective underpinned Mr Yeoh's call for mixed housing in Marina South.

If not, is the opportunity cost of a symbolic - and patronising - gesture to give the poor "the chance to live among the rich", according to Mr Ang, really worth it?

Is it not more prudent to raise billions in land revenues and property taxes from the project and use the money to finance concrete income transfer schemes, including helping those who are currently renting a flat to own a home?

Marina South will be very different in terms of real estate mix from, say, the public housing estates that emerged from the kampungs in Holland Village and Jalan Kukoh decades ago.

It will be a key extension of Singapore's core business and financial district, comprising high-end commercial buildings and mixed developments - a cluster that did not exist in the residential Holland-Bukit Timah or the mixed Havelock-Chinatown areas back in the 1960s and 1970s, or even today.

Any HDB flat in Marina South is likely to cost much more than a similar unit in Holland Village, which is already one of the most expensive HDB estates in Singapore.

As far as I know, no major global city has developed highly subsidised public housing estates in the heart of their central business districts, let alone at such elevated price points.

Instead, I would suggest giving Jalan Kukoh a new lease of life with a mix of well-designed, build-to-order HDB flats, executive condominiums and private property, and would welcome a similar housing mix for Kampong Bugis.

These developments, on the fringe of the Central Business District, would give Singaporeans an opportunity to live, work and play in one zone, as well as reduce the time and cost of their daily commutes.

Owning a car may not even be necessary for many, due to the excellent transportation options.

As I have highlighted in my previous letter, Singapore already has ample spaces for people from all walks of life to socialise and create "rich and intangible cultural synergies" if they choose to.

Let us not imagine that we can engineer "mixing" between people who may have absolutely nothing in common with one another via "superficial constructs".

Toh Cheng Seong
ST Forum, 21 Dec 2013

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